Reclaiming the n-word has been one of the few successful projects of our lifetime, and most of the thanks belongs to hip hop. The n-word used to be a word white people said to black people. Now it is a word black people say to one another, while white people hope silently that a black person will say it to them. This situation is better in all regards—except, ironically, for hip hop. The prevalence of the n-word in rap poses a major problem to its largest audience demographic, white people between the ages of 18 and 35. Now that the work of reclamation has been achieved, we should agree to replace the n-word in music with the word “Inca,” so that when we are rapping along with “Pass Dat,” we don’t have to choose between saying the n-word fifty times and delivering an inferior performance.
During his 2008 trial for a shooting that occurred in 2005, Vonte Skinner saw his amateur rap lyrics used as evidence against him. The lyrics had all been written before the shooting and, according to this editorial in the New York Times, witness testimony against him was not credible, but Skinner still got 30 years. An appellate court overturned his conviction on the grounds that his raps should not have been admitted as evidence, and next week the New Jersey supreme court will hear the state’s appeal. The case raises some interesting questions about how society perceives hip hop and young black man. As Nielson and Kubrin put it, “no other form of fictional expression is exploited this way in the courts.”